As “Zero Dark Thirty," his narrative about the hunt for Osama bin Laden attracts scrutiny, the screenwriter Mark Boal has consoled himself with brouhahas of movies past. Warren Beatty came under fire for “Bonnie and Clyde," in which he starred, because it was considered sensationalist and was pilloried for glamorizing violence. Demonstrators protested the depiction of the Vietnam War in “The Deer Hunter," and protesters were arrested outside the 1979 Oscars. “Apocalypse Now" was a cultural punching bag for years during its much-delayed production. All of these films were, of course, judged differently by history.
Boal, an Oscar winner for “The Hurt Locker" and a nominee this year, wasn’t comparing his work to those films, he was quick to add in an interview here. But in terms of cinematic maelstroms, he said, “that puts me in some pretty good company."
From its inception, “Zero Dark Thirty" was a flash point, initially criticized, sight unseen, by Republicans who expected a pro-Obama interpretation.
Since its release, liberals have taken issue with its depiction of torture, and three senators have raised questions and begun a formal investigation about the CIA’s cooperation with the filmmakers. But it is just one of the films that have drawn unusual attention from Washington this Oscar season, whether that means presidential seals of approval (for the nominees “Beasts of the Southern Wild" and “Lincoln") or congressional and diplomatic screenings (“Lincoln," “Zero Dark Thirty," “Argo").
Beltway pitstops are rare for Oscar-nominated movies, but campaigners in awards and politics have a fair amount in common. Both are eager to stay on message, burnishing egos while advancing the angle they prefer. And just as Washington types try to shape the official record, filmmakers this season have had to defend their views of history and manage the tension between truth and creative license.
Chris Terrio, the “Argo" screenwriter, was drawn to that story, about the daring 1980 rescue of six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis, partly because it presented an example of how to extricate America from conflict in the Middle East, something much on his mind when he began writing it in 2008. “When I first read the story," he said, “I thought, here’s an American intelligence success, an operation that was successful abroad that used only creativity and intelligence to get people out of harm’s way, using nonviolent means."
In adapting the story of the CIA operative Tony Mendez, Terrio and Ben Affleck, the director, did ratchet up the tension, and “Argo" has drawn criticism for fudging facts, like a third-act sequence in which armed Iranian guards chase the departing Americans’ plane down the runway. That never happened. Many of the other dramatic details — a late telegram from President Jimmy Carter, for example, greenlighting the operation — did, though not necessarily in the time frame on screen. Terrio said that he and Affleck heavily debated what was in and out of bounds, girding themselves for dispute.
“We didn’t casually make those artistic decisions," he said. “We wouldn’t have had explosions or gunshots and people shooting at the plane. There were certain things that strayed too far from dramatic license." The liberties they took, he said, were meant to illustrate “an invisible threat" — the Americans’ fear of being caught. Dramatizing that was especially crucial because the audience already knew the ending.
Similarly, in “Lincoln," the screenwriter Tony Kushner changed the historical record on the congressional vote for the 13th Amendment. In his version, two representatives from Connecticut opposed it, effectively approving slavery. Kushner was taken to task by Joe Courtney, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, who said it was a slight to the state’s history. Kushner responded with alacrity, noting that he also changed the delegates’ names “so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn’t perform them" (truth in ethos if not in fact).
“These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the 13th Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote," Kushner wrote in an open letter to Courtney.
Few people, he argued, were put off by the disparity, though drawing attention to it on the eve of the final round of Oscar voting raised hackles. (That Affleck had once campaigned for Courtney was quickly noted by awards watchers and insiders, and just as quickly dismissed by Courtney and representatives of Warner Brothers, the “Argo" studio.)
Though “Lincoln" came wrapped in the authority of the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose best-selling “Team of Rivals" served as a basis for the script, Kushner calls it a “historical fiction," a category that gives him leeway to dramatize and invent. He strove to banish any editorializing from the script, often at the behest of Steven Spielberg, the director, but did find a contemporary context for it in the election of President Barack Obama.
In an interview, he called working on the film during the Obama era “a gift" that changed him, his view of politics and, consequently, the screenplay. “I certainly came to understand a lot watching the president, watching a progressive centrist negotiating, not just with an absolutely determined radicalized right wing, but also negotiating in a sense with the political left, which now as then displayed a tremendous amount of impatience with the democratic process," he said.
Along with several prominent lawyers who specialize in First Amendment cases Kushner signed his name to a letter in support of “Zero Dark Thirty," sent to the Senate this week. The letter takes issue with criticisms by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain, who called the film’s depiction of torture “grossly inaccurate and misleading." The senators demanded that Sony, the studio behind it, correct the impression that torture led to actionable intelligence in the hunt for bin Laden.